Las Vegas Sun

August 26, 2019

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Controversial extension of tax for schools approved as lawmakers end 2019 session

CARSON CITY — In a sweeping series of changes on the final day of the 2019 Legislature, lawmakers delivered breakthrough funding and overhauled a five-decade-old method of allocating state funds to Nevada's K-8 public schools.

The package of education bills now goes to Gov. Steve Sisolak, who was elected last year amid promises to modernize the state's school-funding formula and give pay raises to Nevada's public school teachers .

Clark County School District officials said that with Monday's actions the district "can provide employees an average 2% seniority pay increase and a 3% cost-of-living increase" and pledged to work through the collective-bargaining process with its employee groups to "distribute those funds to all our employees."

Democrats flexed their legislative majority early Monday on the education front by overriding Republican opposition to extending the state's modified business tax as part of Senate Bill 551. The tax originally had been set to expire this summer. Democrats say extending the tax will put $72 million toward teacher pay raises, a priority of Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak's, and add nearly $17 million to school safety funding.

Republicans opposed extending the tax, arguing that the state had other funding on hand — around a $100 million state surplus — to put toward education.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, countered that the state’s public schools needed a consistent, long-term funding source, which extending the tax would provide.

“Either we can sit there and say today at this moment there may be some money to put in education or we can say that we believe in funding education long-term because that need does not go away or we are just sitting here arguing semantics,” she said.

The bill passed on party-line votes in both the Assembly, where Democrats hold a two-thirds majority, and in the Senate, 13-8. Republicans argued a two-thirds majority was needed in both houses to satisfy a constitutional requirement on any tax increases acted on by the Legislature. Democrats, with the backing of an opinion from the Legislative Council Bureau, held that SB 551 was not a tax increase, but a tax extension.

Legislative Republicans say the issue is not closed.

“If it’s signed by the governor, there will be a suit,” Senate Minority Leader James Settlemeyer, R-Minden, said. “That I guarantee."

CCSD released a statement praising lawmakers and Sisolak for the $53 million in state allocations it will see over the biennium from SB 551, plus an additional $13 million in flexible funding it will receive over the two-year period in "flexible funding" under Assembly Bill 309, another piece of education-related legislation winning final passage Monday.

“Nothing is more critical to student success than having a quality teacher in every classroom,” Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara said in the statement. “The Board of Trustees and I have said providing raises to all of our employees is a priority. We stand with Governor Sisolak and the Legislature in support of our educators.”

Eleventh hour changes to the five-decade-old school funding formula

The Nevada Plan, the state’s 52-year-old school-funding formula, was targeted for overhaul late in the session by Democratic senators led by Joyce Woodhouse of Henderson and Mo Denis of Las Vegas.

Senate Bill 543 will eventually roll back the Nevada Plan, which allocated state funds “to ensure each Nevada child a reasonably equal educational opportunity” but has long been criticized as short-changing the state's urban school districts at the expense of rural districts. Its replacement, dubbed the "Pupil-Centered Funding Plan," would go into effect during the 2021-2023 biennium and funnel money to schools based on the cost of educating each student. That cost could be increased based on certain needs, for example whether a student is an English language learner or has a learning or physical disability.

Woodhouse said existing formula was no longer representative of Nevada's population, having been drafted in 1967.

This funding formula will reflect what our student population looks like,” she said, by providing extra, "weighted" funding for the growing number of students with special needs.

In a statement Monday, Sisolak said the Nevada Plan no longer met the “growing need of Nevada’s students and educators.”

“Today’s amendment to Senate Bill 543 provides more flexibility in the budgeting process to ensure we are using funds in a responsible way as we implement a new school funding formula for the first time in over 50 years,” he said in the statement. “I am committed to working throughout the interim to ensure the new funding formula is equitable for every student in every county.”

Counties' sales tax option

Assembly Bill 309, introduced by Speaker Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas, also won final approval Monday.

It would allow counties to institute sales taxes of up to .25% to go toward certain schooling or training provisions, which include:

  • Early childhood education operated by a public school or the school district
  • Adult education operated by a public school or the school district
  • Truancy reduction programs
  • Homelessness reduction programs
  • Affordable housing measures, including development, redevelopment and measures to ensure the availability of housing
  • Recruitment incentives for teachers for high vacancy schools
  • Labor-management programs for workforce training in the hospitality industry

To institute the education sales tax, the bill requires a two-thirds vote of a county commission, or a majority vote in a referendum

AB 309 also contains a block grant provision, in which districts are granted funds from a state Department of Education account. Under this section, Clark County will receive around $27.3 million in the next biennium.

This money must be only be used for certain expenses, including:

  • Teacher incentives
  • Purposes for which a school may apply for other grants, like the Great Teaching and Leading Fund
  • Buying library books
  • Supporting student career organizations

Clark County commissioners have not said whether they favored instituting such a sales tax, but Commissioner Tick Segerblom tweeted that a decision should be known in a “month or two.”

Governor reacts

Sisolak released a statement soon after sine die — the end of the legislative session — discussing lawmakers’ accomplishments.

“It’s been an honor serving alongside the nation’s first female-majority legislature, which has broken barriers and positioned our state as a leader in courageous policies that will make life better for working families,” he said. “In the coming days, I look forward to signing even more groundbreaking legislation and shifting my focus to implementing my priorities from this legislative session.”